It’s surprising but true that people judge you at your own estimation, meaning they’ll believe your own assessment of yourself, good or bad. The same can work in reverse, whereby we start to see and define ourselves in the way that others see and define us.
This is particularly true as we get older and without wishing to be too dramatic, it can be fatal, literally. Yes, letting other people influence your view of yourself could put you in an early grave, or at least rob you of years of happy and energetic life.
This power that other people have over us not always easy to see, especially as it nearly always comes from well-meaning people who wish us well, which makes it all the more dangerous. “Don’t do this, don’t do that,” they tell us. “You’re too old. Let others do it for you. Take it easy, you’ll do yourself an injury and so on. You’ll never learn the piano, crocheting, forget those online education courses…far too difficult at your age.”
Sometimes, the biggest culprit offering this kind of advice is ourselves, possibly inspired by the comments of others.
Mary Wesley was in her late 60s, widowed, short of money with no obvious way to earn it. She had little education and many well-meaning friends told her that she could never become a writer at her age and she would be better trying something simpler.
For a while she believed them and threw the manuscript she’d been slaving over into the bin. Thankfully, a friend stepped in and persuaded her to persist. A few years later at the age of 70, her first novel Jumping the Queue was published. It was a commercial and critical hit and was followed by another eight books in an amazing example of late flowering talent.
Three of her books were filmed for TV and she was regularly in the best seller lists well into her 80s, yet if she’d listened to people telling her it was impossible to start a writing career at her age, she would never have made it.
There are countless similar stories. Leaving political affiliations aside, I thought it was quite an achievement for Donald Trump to become President of the United States at the age of 70…and then along came Joe Biden to trump Trump by becoming president at the age of 78.
It’s not only the rich and powerful. Millions of people refuse to conform to the cliché of inactivity in old age and go on to achieve amazing things; whether it’s setting up a new business, learning new skills from online training courses to simply getting out more and enjoying the big wide world. It’s all there for the taking for those who dare to try.
You’re never too old; you’re never past it.
The scientist Albert-László Barabási looks at the way people succeed in his book, The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success . He focuses in particular on those who make breakthroughs later in life, sometimes in the same field that they’ve worked in all their lives and sometimes after taking a new direction as with Mary Wesley.
What nearly all the people he quotes have in common is their ability to keep trying, regardless of how many times they fail, and their readiness to explore new avenues. A prime example is the chemist John Fenn, who had enjoyed a successful but unspectacular career by the time he retired from Yale University at the age of 70.
He might have decided to put his feet up and tend the roses, but he felt he had unfinished business that he had been unable to see through while at Yale. He took up a post at another university that allowed him the freedom to develop a way to measure the masses of large molecules and proteins. He succeeded spectacularly and his technique became a standard piece of equipment in labs across the world.
In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry at the age of 85 for having opened up a whole new field in his subject. Not bad for a man thought to be over the hill at 70.
Barabási gives lots more examples of people who took a risk and succeeded in new fields later in life, like the actor Alan Rickman who got his first movie role at the age of 46; Ray Kroc, who was well into his 50s when he bought into a little-known restaurant chain called McDonald’s and turned it into a worldwide conglomerate; Nelson Mandela who became President of South Africa at the age of 76 after spending 27 years in jail.
Can you imagine the negative feedback these people would have received if they had discussed their plans with the typical doomsayers?
“When I get out of jail, I’m going to be president.” Yes, of course, you are Nelson. Why don’t have lie down with a nice cup of cocoa.
“I’m going to make hamburgers conquer the world.” Yes, of course you will Ray. Can you get me some more fries.
Often warnings about being too old simply reflect the failings of the people giving the advice: they’re just projecting their doubts and inabilities on to you; they don’t think they could do something, so they imagine you shouldn’t be able to do it either.
We need to be able to rise above it or we give up doing things we like or never even attempt something new and challenging that could improve our lives, such as fitness routines, online training courses, getting out and meeting new people…anything that means sticking your neck out, even just a little.
This kind of pressure from well-meaning people can start surprisingly early. I first experienced it just after I’d turned 30. I had always been a keen sportsman and played football (soccer to our American friends) every week. Then in one game I sprained my ankle and was struggling to walk as I went into work the next day.
Well, the commotion. I was bombarded with advice that it was time to hang up my boots. Football is a young man’s game, you’ve served your time, step back, put your feet up and take it easy. I heard this so many times over the next few days I started to believe it was true.
Thankfully, I decided to carry on for another few years and by the time I got to my mid-30s I was still ok so I set myself the target of carrying on until I was 40. At the time, that seemed an ancient age to be playing any sport but I managed it. The deadlines kept getting put further and further back until I was still playing at 60 and, yes, ok, at that point it really was time to give up, but you get the point.
If I’d taken the advice of the office sages, I’d have stopped playing at 30 and missed out on 30 years of playing a sport I liked and which kept me fit. And I wouldn’t just have lost out on football and fitness.
I would have also lost 30 years of a social life with fellow players, going for a drink after the game and meeting up for occasional meals, being invited to engagement and wedding parties. All things that make life enjoyable. All this would not have happened for the sake of a sprained ankle and giving into well-meaning but ill-advised peer pressure.
And what of the people dishing out that advice? Many of them went on to be couch potatoes and developed the health issues associated with a sedentary lifestyle…sadly a few of them fell victim to those lifestyle illnesses and are no longer with us.
Of course, people telling you what to do isn’t the only pressure you’ll face as you get older. A much more subtle problem is the way others react towards you. It’s the old cliché that you don’t feel any different, but people start to treat you differently.
We should guard against this. Young people often think in clichés and believe that if you reach a certain age, you can be treated and spoken to differently. It’s all too easy to start playing the role they give us.
What matters is that you make your own decisions as you get older just like you did all through the rest of your adult life. And you don’t let others set your agenda.
This is particularly important in the workplace. As you get older it’s highly likely that you’ll become the subject of ageist comments and attitudes, often just harmless banter but often more damaging. And even the most innocent of ‘jokes about age’ can have damaging consequences.
If you find younger colleagues making remarks about you not being up with new technology or the latest developments in your field, or the latest TV shows then you need to take action. By all means go along with the banter, most of it is just fun, but don’t allow yourself to be pushed into a corner where you are seen as past it and out of touch.
Don’t be afraid to continue doing the things you like doing, even if they are supposed to be the preserve of the young. On the other hand, don’t be persuaded it’s too late to learn something new, whether technical, physical, musical or whatever. There are any number of online education courses, many of them free so look around. Better still, find a course at your local college or night school if possible. That would put you in contact with local people, offering you the opportunity to make new friendships and gain new experiences.
Push back the boundaries and do what you like. You’ll feel a lot better for it.